Some 200 People gathered on the Nevada County side of the old Narrow Gauge Railroad’s high steel trestle across the Bear River.
It was a warm and sunny day, and they came to watch it come tumbling down. It was 2:45 p.m., Friday, Aug. 23, 1963.
All morning long a demolition crew from Granite Construction Company was busy strapping explosive charges on the supporting members of the 55-year- old railroad structure. The Narrow Gauge had ceased operations 21 years before and the rusting steel trestle was scheduled to be demolished to make way for Rollins Dam, which would rise on the exact spot now occupied by the bridge.
Earlier, the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) had passed a bond issue and had embarked on the ambitious Yuba-Bear River Project — a project that included construction of two major dams, strengthening and heightening others, repairing and improving water delivery systems, building hydroelectric plants and generally conserving Nevada County’s great natural resource—water.
The old trestle served no useful purpose. However, it was the last vestige of the little railroad’s glorious past. There were those who argued that the structure was historic and should be saved. There was even a suggestion that it be dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere, but, no dice; her fate was sealed.
Before the demolition ceremony, a luncheon was served in the Veterans Memorial Building in Grass Valley for invited guests presided over by John Hodge, Grass Valley’s mayor, and Edwin Koster, NID’s general manager. The Rev. Robert Noble, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, delivered the invocation while Mrs. Thomas Threlkeld sang the national anthem.
After lunch, the guests boarded buses for the trip to the Bear River site. Here ceremonies would feature a host of local dignitaries, with the principal speech delivered by William Warne, state director of the Department of Water Resources.
The honor of setting off the explosive charges was given to Mrs. Warren S. Wilson, wife of the NID’s board chairman. Previously, the honor had been offered to John Nolan, who, in 1908, witnessed completion of the trestle, but Nolan declined, saying “the old girl was like a member of the family. I don’t have the heart to do it.”
All was ready. The verbal countdown began over the public address system: “Five, four, three two, one..” Mrs. Wilson pushed down the plunger in the firing box as newsreel, wire service, local and press photographers from all parts of the state pointed their cameras toward the explosion. There was even a film crew from the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) to film file footage.
A cloud of dust puffed up along the bridge footings and rose skyward, followed by the roar of two sharp blasts. The dust then settled slowly. As it cleared, the spectators realized that the old bridge was still standing — broken, bowed and sagging, but still proudly standing.
The audience waited for the structure to topple, but it did not. After a brief period, a roar of laughter went up from the crowd, followed by applause. A cable had been attached to the bridge prior to the attempt and a bulldozer then tried to pull the decrepit structure down. As if fate was on the side of the defiant trestle, the cable snapped!
Another chuckle rose from the audience as the announcer apologized for the trestle’s lack of cooperation and reluctantly bid them adieu.
Two more attempts to topple the trestle were made that day and each failed.
At 7 p.m., I heard the head powder monkey tell the crew, “Might as well go home, we’re out of explosive.”
He then turned to me and said, “Hell, we could have blown the damned thing down on the first try if we had put more explosive around the bridge, but there were just too many people watching. I could just see a cross tie or two taking off somebody’s head!” He was serious.
Monday, the 26th, saw crews with cutting torches and bulldozers deliver the coup de grace.
They again attached cables, and with the remaining supporting steel members cut through, down she came in a tangled mass of junk.
Among the spectators that day were many former Narrow Gauge employees. John Nolan, the last master mechanic, attended with Bob Paine, the last freight and passenger agent. Also present was Fred Hawke, a former electrician and engineer. They were universal in their condemnation of the “dastardly deed” but understood that all that was left for them to savor was their individual memories of the old Never Come, Never Go.
Sic transit gloria mundi!
Bob Wyckoff, was a former newspaper editor, author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. Visit TheUnion.com for more of his stories and photography on western Nevada County history.